Tri-City Herald

January 22, 2000

Aluminum plant site highly contaminated, watchdog group says

Wendy Culverwall
Herald staff writer

A Hanford watchdog group claimed Friday it has found unusually high levels of radioactive contamination on a former Hanford 300 area site now occupied by an aluminum plant.

Erik Olds, spokesman for the Department of Energy, said the findings by the Government Accountability Project couldn't be confirmed.

GAP Program Director Tom Carpenter said the project's scientist Norm Buske walked in a controlled area near the Richland Specialty Extrusions plant, which is not a security area, on Jan. 11. Buske was escorted by site officials at the time.

Carpenter visited the uncontrolled side of the fence on Jan. 13, walked past a concrete wall and found the high readings in an area not closed to the public. He said he wrote to and talked to various regulators then returned to the site again on Jan. 20.

On all three occasions, he said, his equipment detected radioactive waste on southeast section of the extrusion plant properly.

Carpenter said he measured doses as high as two millirem per hour.

The Environmental Protection Agency sets the maximum safe radiation doses to members of the general public at 25 millirem per year. The Department of Energy has a higher limit for Hanford workers 100 millirem per year.

Olds said Friday that DOE hasn't seen Carpenter's data and wasn't familiar with how he took his readings. All former Hanford sites that are leased to private companies are thoroughly evaluated and undergo annual monitoring, Olds said.

"If it wasn't safe, we wouldn't have people in that facility," he said.

Richland Specialty Extrusions was created in 1996 by Kaiser Aluminum after Kaiser agreed to purchase a 4,000 ton extrusion press from DOE for only $10,000. The agreement called for DOE to certify the site was clean of hazards and for Kaiser to operate the press as a commercial enterprise in Richland.

The plant initially employed about 13 workers. It produces seamless metal tubing for baseball bats and other metal products

The program that led to the creation of the plant won the 1996 Public-Private Partnerships Program Award and was lauded by' Vice President Al Gore as a model for converting public assets to spur economic development. The award is sponsored by the National Council for Public-Private partnership and is one of the highest honors in the field of privatization.

Carpenter said the readings dropped quickly between the site behind the wall and the building. The worst area was five to six times above "background" levels, he said.

Carpenter didn't claim to have performed an exhaustive study of the site, but said his readings would be cause for action by regulators.

"Our major concern is for the workers there," he said.

Olds said workers at the factory undergo the same training as Hanford site workers.

Mike Wilson, director of nuclear waste program for the Washington Department of Ecology, said he hadn't heard anything about the group's claim and couldn't comment.

Officials at Kaiser Aluminum could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.